How do you choose the right school leaver programme for you?
There is a huge variety of apprenticeships out there and you need to be as fully informed as possible to make the right choice for your future. We’ve put together a checklist of questions to help you pin down what different programmes have to offer and work out which would be best for you. It’s essential to know what you’re signing up for – and what you stand to get out of it.
It may be tempting to dive straight in and apply for every apprenticeship you’re eligible for, but first take a moment to reflect on what matters most to you and where you might be prepared to compromise. Don’t worry if you aren’t yet sure; you’ll figure it out as you compare different options and take part in work experience. You might even change your mind in the process. However, it’s worth asking yourself these questions from the outset and keeping them in mind.
Prioritising your applications according to these values will ensure you have time to research employers in depth and put together high-quality applications tailored to each organisation. Just as importantly, you’ll be sure that you really want to work there.
There’s no need to have your heart set on one particular apprenticeship, but it’s a good idea to pick out a shortlist of around three to four organisations that interest you the most and focus on them first, before moving on to the ones you ranked the next-highest and so on.
While some apprenticeships don’t specify any formal qualifications, particularly at level 2 and 3, you should always check the criteria carefully to make sure.
- What are the GCSE requirements? Many apprenticeships specify that you must have a minimum of three or five GCSEs at grade A* to C (9 to 4 in the new grading system), including English and maths – even those that also ask for A levels or equivalent.
- For higher and degree apprenticeships (level 4 and above), what are the A level or UCAS points requirements? Employers may specify the grades and subjects they want. In many cases, for the most popular programmes, the grades required would be enough to get you into a leading university.
If you don’t have the right grades but are convinced you’d be a good fit for the apprenticeship in every other way and have strengths in other areas that you could highlight, it could be worth contacting the recruitment team to ask if it they would consider your application anyway.
If you don’t have the right grades and have mitigating or extenuating circumstances such as a family bereavement or serious illness, you should contact the recruitment team to see if this can be taken into account.
For some programmes, you may need to pass a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check. A DBS check allows employers to access the criminal record history of people who are applying for work. You may also need references, proof of your right to work or immigration and nationality status, and, for some roles, security clearance.
There is a lot of variation in the qualifications on offer from apprenticeships. Some big employers run a range of different schemes for school leavers, with each programme offering a slightly different package of work, training and qualifications. It is vital to research what is available and be clear about what you want.
Here are some questions to bear in mind as you assess the qualifications on offer from different apprenticeships:
- Do you know what you want to do career-wise? If you’re not sure about the profession you want to enter at this stage, you might be better off keeping your options open by going on to study for A levels (if you’ve finished GCSEs or equivalent) or a traditional university degree (if you’ve completed A levels or equivalent).
- Apprenticeships often specialise in specific areas of work within a profession. Are you ready to specialise in this way? Are you sure you have found the right specialism for you?
- If you know what you want to do, which apprenticeships offer the right qualifications to set you up for the career you want?
If you are sure about your overall direction but not sure about the specific area of work, you could tell the recruiter that you are interested to know whether there would be any potential to change direction if you find that you are very strongly drawn to another area once you have gained expertise and are much more familiar with various aspects of the employer’s work. Think about your timing, too – consider asking this question either before you apply or once you have a job offer and are deciding whether to accept it.
Some recruiters run events to help you find out more about the nature of the work involved in their school leaver programmes, and it’s well worth making the time to attend these.
What kind of role will you be able to move on to after you complete your apprenticeship? If you choose a higher or degree apprenticeship, will you be doing the same kind of work as a graduate recruit, how will your salary compare and will your prospects for career progression and promotion be the same as a graduate’s? Find out as much as you can about the future career path that will be opened up for you by the apprenticeship you are considering applying for.
Make sure you check out the support that will be available as part of your apprenticeship. Here are some examples of what might be on offer:
- Mentor – a more senior member of the business who will provide advice and support with your long-term career aspirations.
- Social events and activities such as regular drinks for employees in your area of the business and extracurricular activities such as a choir, football or netball.
- The chance to join employee networks.
Depending on your role, you may be expected to travel frequently. Aim to find out where you will be based and how much time you will be spending elsewhere. For example, you might spend some time in the office and some time at college, or you might be expected to travel to different offices or branches. Make sure you are happy with the amount of travel involved and check whether the costs of travel will be met by your employer.
Before you take up an offer of a place on an apprenticeship, you should find out whether you are being taken on as a permanent employee, with access to the same benefits. Some apprenticeships recruit candidates as permanent employees but on a training contract that ends with the programme, so there is no firm guarantee of a job at the end of it. However, don’t let this put you off: it’s worth knowing where you stand, but you should also remember that a company is unlikely to invest in training you and then cut you loose. In any case, if you did find yourself job-hunting at the end of your programme, your work experience and qualifications would put you in a strong position.
You should also find out what will happen if you leave the programme early. For example, you might be asked to pay towards some of the costs of the training you have received. If this kind of information isn’t readily available on the employer’s website or in the apprenticeship brochure, ask the recruitment team after you’ve received an offer and before you accept it. It’s a good idea to ask for details about the training on offer at interview stage, and you can also ask what other employees on the apprenticeship have gone on to do after finishing it, but you risk creating a bad impression if you ask about leaving the programme before the employer has even decided whether to take you on.
One of the biggest incentives for choosing the apprenticeship route rather than traditional university study is the chance to avoid debt and gain qualifications while earning. You’ll want to check out salary details carefully and compare the pay on offer to the debts and earning potential you could have as a graduate.
Bear in mind that some apprenticeships offer wages that increase with each year of the programme. You may also have access to a package of employee benefits ranging from a season ticket loan and help with relocation costs to gym membership and private medical cover.
The next step is to browse employers’ websites (especially the ‘careers’ and ‘about us’ sections) and social media channels. You can also meet school leaver recruiters at careers fairs and open days, which may be face to face or virtual. Work experience is an ideal way to discover first hand whether you’d enjoy working in a particular company, role or career sector.
It’s a good idea to note down key points so that you can refer back to them, and perhaps do some further research, before writing applications or attending interviews. Remember also that this exercise is about deciding whether each employer is a good fit for you and learning more about those that appeal to you most. It shouldn’t feel like a chore. If you’re excited or at least intrigued by what you read, it’s a good sign.